Book review: 'Pepper' history is nothing to sneeze at

Like any decent history, "Pepper: A History of the World's Most Influential Spice" can make one feel horrible about being of European descent.

But the upside is, the book most enjoyably opens one's eyes about a food that most of us completely take for granted.

Shakers and grinders of black pepper are on almost every Western table and kitchen counter. Just about every savory recipe in every cookbook calls for pepper -- these days, freshly ground or cracked. We waste packets of pepper left in bags of fast food.

Yet how much do any of us know about the stuff?

Marjorie Shaffer, a science writer and editor at New York University School of Medicine, knew a good topic for a popular book when she found one.

With solid research and solid writing, but without overdoing it, she delivers 228 pages that make for an easy and quite spicy summer read.

I've seen pepper growing, on large vines, in India, one of the tropical locales where pepper thrives. Ms. Shaffer writes that "its stubborn inability to grow elsewhere is one of the reasons it has had such an impact on world history."

That's because once wealthy Europeans got a taste for this exotic dried berry of genus Pipers, people would do just about anything to get their hands on it, and do anything to make as much money as possible on it.

Ms. Shaffer sets it up by laying out a completely different time, when pepper represented the lost Garden of Eden, and sauciers used 20 pounds of it, and pounds of other spices of the mythical east, in a single sauce.

The meat of the book is the race, led by the Portuguese in the 1500s, and taken up by the Dutch and the English in the 1600s, to monopolize the pepper trade in the Indian Ocean.

It's a sordid tale of cheating scales and fixing prices, attacking and subjugating natives, and raping distant landscapes.

I was fascinated to think about the sailors stuck on voyages that would last more than two years. So bad were the conditions that companies used convicts, many of whom never made it back.

Many ships did not, and not just because of storms and pirates. "Other ships had to be scuttled because they were infested with centipedes, scorpions, cockroaches, and innumerable white ants," Ms. Shaffer points out. "Amasa Delano, an American sailor who joined the East India Company, describes putting in at Benkoolen in 1792 and having to sink his ship, the Endeavor, because it was overrun with vermin and insects."

But a relative few made huge fortunes on pepper.

That included many Americans, once our young nation got in on the pepper trade, which remained tumultuous up to the U.S. Civil War. The book tells of Boston black-pepper trader Elihu Yale, who for a time was president and governor of Madras, and who later donated the money to establish Yale University.

Ms. Shaffer tacks on a cringe-worthy chapter about how hungry sailors in pepper boats helped make the Dodo extinct, and another, in which mankind looks a little better, that explores pepper's medicinal properties.

In the end, she succeeds, as she sets out to do, to tell not so much the history of pepper, but rather to depict how pepper shaped so much human history.

You'll be amazed by all that's in that black dust you're sprinkling on so much of your food.

Bob Batz Jr.: and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr. First Published June 27, 2013 4:00 AM


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